Essays: Knocked out by Ali |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Knocked out by Ali

WILD Image of the week was Muhammad Ali strangling Parkinson (BBC1) while yelling ‘Are you calling me a nigger?’ But at that stage Ali was still joking.

Ali imitated George Foreman’s fighting stance: to go forward, Foreman advances one foot and brings the other up to join it. The impersonation was very funny. ‘Me, I don’t see the mirage, I see the reality.’ Ali explained that the psychological barrage he lays down before a fight is designed to make his opponent angry rather than frightened, so that he will fight too hard. All this was greeted by Parkinson’s audience with applause. There could be no doubt that the champion was k.o.-ing the viewers in millions. ‘I should have this show,’ he told Parky, with some justice. Parky beamed benevolently.

With the audience on his side, the wily Ali then turned them against his host. ‘Can you box?’ he asked insistently, apparently resenting the aspersions cast by Parky on Joe Bugner’s prowess. There was an answer to this — something along the lines of a critic not being obliged to practise the art he analyses — but Parky could be forgiven for failing to articulate it, considering that the heavyweight champion of the world was apparently about to go berserk with rage only a few feet from his nose.

This was the time to get things back on a chummy basis, if possible, but with Parky the questions arrive in their predetermined order whether the guest is relaxed, keyed up, white-lipped with fear, fibrillating, drunk or dead. Parky asked Ali an awkward question about his Muslim faith. Ali went apoplectic and treated the tube to a torrent of Muslim propaganda, punctuated only by animadversions on his host’s lack of righteousness. The recipient looked shirty at being called unrighteous. ‘I have the type of knowledge Jesus had,’ shrieked Ali gnomically. There was no arguing with that.

By this time Ali must have forfeited the sympathy of a large part of the white audience, not least because of the way he made it clear that be didn’t give a damn what whitey thought: black advancement, so far as he was concerned, was all about black wealth, black power and black spiritual strength, and couldn’t wait for white tolerance. It was depressing (although not, alas, surprising) to see this argument being greeted as an irrational mystery by the show’s host. Inter-racial politics have revolved around this very point for years, yet Parky seemed never to have heard of it. Brian Clough got up from the audience to say that he thought Ali had ‘lost’ because he had blown his top. The reverse, of course, was true. On a cosy drone-in like ‘Parkinson’ even paranoia looks like honest passion.

Joey (BBC2) was a dramatised reconstruction of its eponymous hero’s life-long fight to get a message through to the outside world from his prison of brain-damage. The show was directed by Brian Gibson, who co-wrote it with Elaine Morgan. Gibson’s reputation as a maverick director was already substantial, and this programme not merely confirmed it, but confirmed it mightily. It is difficult to think of anyone else who would take on a subject so emotionally and technically awkward, and make sense of it. Perhaps Gibson’s imperviousness to embarrassment (he did that ‘Horizon’ on whether immigrant doctors in Britain were properly qualified — a touchy subject) is part of his secret. Certainly there was plenty in Joey’s story to make the averagely sensitive director steer well clear. Maimed people drooled, raved and flopped about. Seldom could the camera get a rest from looking at unsettling things.

But there is an integrity beyond sensitivity, and this programme possessed it. I would have stopped watching if I could, but the story demanded attention. The moment when Joey made contact with Ernie is a perennial, having been played before in ‘The Miracle-Worker’ and ‘Mandy.’ But no amount of media-desensitisation could dull its impact. The show will probably win all the prizes that there are, and should. But for the technical feat of directing damaged actors, no prize could possibly meet the case. To see talent inside those ruined bodies, and get it out, was an act of imagination sufficient to leave the most jaded viewer staggered.

A Passion for Churches (BBC2) was Sir John Betjeman’s ‘celebration of the C of E.’ Produced by Edward Mirzoeff, the man behind Betjeman’s masterpiece about Metroland, the show had not quite the heady scope of its predecessor, but was still very good. ‘As I look through this rood screen,’ chuffed the peeping laureate, ‘I can see the colours of the altar hangings. Pink predominates.’ Shooting and editing was all done with a delicate touch. The sails of yachts floated in green fields squeezed and blurred by the telephoto. ‘Look at that,’ breathed Betjeman, ‘for vastness and height*.’ The lens zoomed airily into a vault. We saw beekeeping nuns at an Anglican convent and the annual festival of the Mothers’ Union at Norwich Cathedral, with the smooth Bishop presiding. We saw works of art that it would be folly not to preserve for as long as life lasts. But we didn’t hear much about what is to he done with the Church as an institution now that so few people believe in it.

Betjeman climbed the stages of a three-decker pulpit and explained how the local society used to arrange itself every Sunday according to rank, with that pew for the squire, that one for the large farmers, those for the cottagers and those back there for the lesser tenantry. That things don’t work so neatly nowadays is a matter for some regret, but a few hints at what Betjeman considers to have gone wrong would have helped. The great merit of the Metroland show was that it saw how the district had been destroyed by its own success: it is not just because of neglect that things pass.

Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC1) is repeating its last series. In our house we are watching it all over again.

[ “...for vastness and light” ]

The Observer, 15th December 1974

[ An excerpt from this piece can be found in Visions Before Midnight ]